21 November 2010

Death in the Jungle

Perhaps you missed it, but the U.S. national news last week carried the story of the death of Sister Eugenie Blanchard, who was, at her death, 114 years old and believed to be the oldest person in the world. She was born in St. Barths and died in St. Barths. Really.

Cause of death was not announced. Personally, I believe it was global warming.

Every sentient person knows that Al Gore had it right: every time it rains, (or doesn’t rain, depending on which side of the aisle you sit) Global Warming is to blame. And for sure, St. Barths has had record-breaking rain for two months. People here say nothing like this has been seen for thirty years. Of course, the locals who say that know as much about Global Warming as does Mr. Gore, but hey, he has a Nobel and they just live and work here and they do not give Nobel medals for that.

Anyway, even Gore, who for all I know has never been here, (and I hope he never comes because I will never forgive him for losing the election in 2000) would be able to take one look at this place and recognize the island has had an extraordinary amount of rain in the last 60 days or so.

What has this to do with the death of Sister Eugenie Blanchard? Well, I am really not sure, but using GlenBeckian logic I think I could easily connect them. Basically, you write Sister Eugenie’s name on a whiteboard, write “ Lots of rain” and “Global Warming” to the right of it, draw an oval encompassing all three phrases, shed some tears, and there it is. The logic is ineluctable. (Could any of you prove there is NO relationship between Sister Eugenie’s death and the by now well-established link between heavy rain showers and Global Warming?) You cannot argue with science.

Anyway, for readers who i) have been here in the past, and/or ii) plan on coming, or iii) have not been here but should come (definitely not you, Al!), I offer up this report on weather and its effects in Paradise.

After hurricane Earl hit the island 2-3 months ago, our house manager emailed us that though we had some minor water intrusion (wind-driven rain seeped in under doorways, stained some rugs and drapes), we had no material physical damage, but the high winds had devastated the shrubbery on our island, trees and bushes were stripped bare, and gone was the privacy we enjoyed by virtue of the belt of green between us and our neighbors. Ugh.

But though Earl’s successors brushed the island without a direct hit, the rains never stopped. Heavy downpours, day after day, week after week. As a result, carpenters on the island (every person who owns or can borrow a saw and a plane is a “carpenter”) are now working overtime; one out of every three doors on the island is swollen shut, window sills are rotted out, exterior paint is peeling off concrete walls as well as the wooden ones, deck and driveway lights are shorted out, --a mess. Saline, a flat area on the island where 50 years ago locals worked the salt ponds was under water and the people who lived there left their cars on the upgrade and rowed to and from their homes.

Frequently, hurricane damage on St. Barth’s steep hillsides takes the form of rock slides. When the mountains get soaked to an extreme, a chunk of the surface loses its grip and we get mud and rock slides. We worry about that a lot, and in fact a small chunk of the mountain above our house gave way a couple of months ago but the rocks and debris were stopped by the concrete and stone retaining wall we built immediately upon taking possession. What the previous owner was thinking I have no idea.

Pinks and I arrived on Monday -- in the rain. The airport is busy, busy, busy. Not with flights, but with painters, carpenters, electricians. They are spiffing up the terminal, boxing in the steel poles, building wooden screens, adding stone planters, re-doing the immigration and luggage areas, all in a mad rush to get it done by Christmas. The timetable looks impossible to me, but Le Presidente is an accomplished executive and I would not sell him short.

Tuesday’s agenda called for tick surgery followed by grocery buying. Neither went well. Hurricane Tomas, though hundreds of miles from here, had kicked up huge swells in these waters. The St. Barths harbor was closed. Freighters had not been able to dock for days. Add in the strike in France and the result is a grocery store without groceries. We did manage some boxed UHT milk, cheese, a French bread, and, of course, Tanqueray, but that’s about it. On balance, not so bad.

The rains stopped in the afternoon, leaving behind dark threatening clouds, so we did what any sensible non-working St. Barthian would do: we went to the beach. Surprise: there were lots of people there, visitors and locals alike. Everybody is desperate for some kind of return to normalcy. And there is nothing more normal in Paradise than going to the beach. The sea is quite warm and we re-discovered what we already knew: you do not need sunshine to fall asleep reading a book on the beach.

On Wednesday, we actually had some sun and a fantastic sunset. Beautiful. On our walk up the mountain in the morning, we discovered the island is weeping. There is water pouring from rocks, running across the road, down the road, everywhere. We generally avoid walking in the rain because the concrete on older roads here is worn smooth and very slippery when wet, but there we were, sweating in the morning sun, walking on the wet sections of the steep hill as one would walk on ice: slowly, putting the whole foot down at once, keeping your arms out for balance like a tightrope walker. Ah, the tropics.

Scheduled our first NYC visitors of the season on Friday: Dan Leffell and Julie Damonkos coming over for cocktails and then dinner out at Santa Fe. We told them to arrive here at 5:30 p.m. to catch the last of the beautiful sunset from our deck. It is poured all Friday morning and we thought the likelihood of a sunset to be tres slim, but the ocean swells had subsided, there was some stuff on the shelves in the stores, and we would at least be able to eat and drink. But they had the charm, sun came out blazing at noon, a gorgeous beach day, and a fantastic sunset.

The most significant aspect of this place right now, aside from the frantic energy of the 110% full speed ahead push to get the villas, stores, hotels, roads, etc ready for the Christmas season, is the lushness of the island greenery. Whatever may have been the conditions in August, the months of rain have turned this place into a jungle. We have never before seen the mountains so green, swallowing up the houses on the steeper slopes. Those who are not employed fixing up the villas and the airport are busy hacking away at the vegetation overtaking the roads. Two-lane roads are now one and half lanes by reason of encroaching greenery. Beautiful, and a little scary too.

Oh, yeah. Our neighbors are invisible again. Now if only I can get the electrician, the carpenter, the refrigerator guy, the locksmith, and the stonemason to come and repair water damage …. Ahh, we should be so lucky.

To heck with it. Another hot sunny day. Off to Flamands Beach, some sun, and a nap.

A bientot.

10 November 2010

Marabunta and Obamacare

Once upon a time, I was fascinated by a novel I had borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library (Eastern Parkway branch, corner Schenectady Avenue). The story line involved a cattle rancher somewhere in South America who confounded the natives by monthly butchering a segment of his herd, loading the carcasses on a barge and hiring a local tug to pull it 25 miles upriver. The terminus of the voyage was an apparently abandoned pier in an unpopulated part of the jungle. The captain's instructions were to tie up the carcass-laden barge to the pier, and return down river with the now-empty barge deposited there the previous month.

At the risk of spoiling it for you, I’ll reveal the bare bones of the plot. The upriver area was in the control of the Marabunta, a/k/a Army Ants. There were gazillions of them; nothing could stop the omnivores' progress in search of food. They were highly organized, and had developed the means to cross rivers and climb mountains. While on the march they devoured everything in their path. The delivery of slaughtered cattle on a monthly basis was part of a deal the rancher had made with the Marabunta chief. In exchange for the latter’s agreement not to advance farther south and eat the rancher out of house and home, and maybe his family as well, the farmer paid a ransom of providing an alternative food supply.

Grisly, huh? Fantastic, right? However intriguing (to me, at least) total science fiction you say? Impossible?

Not so fast.

It would appear likely that person of my acquaintance has entered into a similar bargain: the marauding insects in this scenario are not ants, but ticks, and the ransom meat offered up to the blood sucking octopods is not bovine but human. Which humans and where does the farmer find them? He invites them to spend a weekend on his farm, takes them for walks in the woods where the Tick Chief, alerted to the coming event, has established effective ambushes. Mmm, Mmm, good!

Chapter II

What does Obamacare have to do with this story? No, the Tick Chief/Farmer deal is not part of a right wing conspiracy, and the latest victim is not Keith Olbermann. The victim is moi, and the conspiracy was revealed the day after I arrived here in Paradise and found one of the Chief's followers happily nestled in my inner thigh, where she, no doubt, hoped to enjoy a free trip to the Carib on the American plan. She was discovered this morning. While I had, in my salad days, been extraordinarily brave and effective at removing ticks from our Labrador Retrievers, I was neither when it came to working on myself, and off I went to seek local medical intervention.

Unlike his U.S. counterparts, Dr. Bernard Housson has walk-in office hours. He is on duty Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and his wife Chantal takes Tues, Thursday and Saturday. The walk-in hours are from 8 a.m. to noon. Afternoons and Sundays are for office appointments and (gulp) house calls. The few times I have visited Dr. Bernard, I have gone in the morning and waited, usually for not longer than 20 minutes or so. I did that this morning, with Pinks along for emotional support.

Because this was Tuesday, I expected to see Doctor Chantal Housson, whom I had never met. When I walked into her office, I was stunned to see that Dr. Bernard Housson, whom I had judged to be about 60 years old, was married to a teen-age girl! She looked like my granddaughter Hannah, only taller and with glasses. Do the French allow one to finish Medical School before high school? Or is it that perhaps one does not need medical school at all, one just applies for a medical license when old enough to drive a car? Or perhaps the license to practice law is acquired by marrying a doctor: sort of like immigration. I dunno.

The teenage doc was neatly dressed, wore coke-bottle-thick glasses, and tolerated unmanageable long curly red hair which refused all efforts at confinement. When I blundered by calling her Dr. Housson, she blushed and explained she was NOT Mrs. Housson, but a temporary replacement for the Houssons who were currently on vacation. The explanation took a while because the telephone rang every thirty seconds and she felt an absolute obligation to take every call. We waited at her desk in the room adjacent to the treatment room. Between calls, I was able to involve her in my problem. I had a tick, half buried, half not, in my thigh. She looked, said “pas de problem” and she led me inside to lie down on the treatment table.

First, she went to the glass-fronted cabinet where the Houssons kept their instruments. She was frustrated. Whatever she was looking for, it was not there. She opened tray after tray of medical implements. When I picked my head up I could see her poking through the pile. When I stared at the ceiling, I could hear the clatter of the once-sterile, once-sharp tools. She explained that in France, they have special tools for removing ticks, but inasmuch as there are no ticks native to Saint Barths, those tools are missing from this office. I knew then I was in trouble because we certainly do have ticks here, as every dog and goat owner well knows! But instead of leaping off the table and making my way to the hospital, I let her proceed. A unique adventure.

She went to work with whatever substitute tools she could find—as far as I could tell they were a miniaturized pick and shovel. I expected a bright light and a huge magnifier. What I got was Dr. Coudron, peering at my upper inner thigh with her nose but a few inches from my crotch in the dim general lighting of the 40 watt ceiling bulbs. Twenty minutes later, I was unable to ascertain who was sweating more, she or I. While staring at the ceiling, I was hoping to hear, “OK, got it, you can get up now.” Or at least, “Almost there, another minute.” Instead, I heard, “Mon dieu”, and after five minutes or so, she displayed her bilingual talents by muttering “Shit, shit, shit.”. She kept moving about, changing the angle of attack, muttering French words that did not sound at all encouraging, and interrupting the work to search for different instruments of torture at the equipment cabinets. And the telephone! She was one of those obsessive people who believe a telephone caller more important the person sitting opposite her at her desk--or lying on her surgical table. After she took the first two calls in the midst of the procedure, and the next call came in, I said “Leave it, do not answer that telephone, please!”—all to no avail. Pinks, my coach, was trying her best not to laugh at the scene, but could not entirely suppress a grin when she was out of Dr. Coudron’s sight line. I, not so much.

The tick was obviously a jihadist and preferred dismemberment to surrender. After 45 minutes (seventeen treatment, 28 on the phone), the Doogie Howser wannabe mopped her brow for the last time and declared victory. She said she had successfully removed “most” of the tick, and she gave me prescriptions for antibiotics, a drug to counter the adverse digestive effects of the antibiotics, an anti-bacterial spray, and a plaster cast that ran from upper thigh to ankle. Well, all of the above except for the last.

Total cost of treatment and pharmaceuticals: 116 euros. Value of the experience: priceless.

Of course, Obamacare will not reimburse for any of this. Where is my President when I need him? What is he doing in India with half the U.S. Navy, spending 200 million USD a day, and renting all 250 rooms in the Taj Mahal? Hey, just because I am overseas does not mean I don’t still get the news straight from Michele Bachmann.

Pinks recommends I send the bill to John Boehner.

It’s good to be back in Paradise, even for this ten day trip.. At least we didn’t miss any beach time while at the doctor. It has been raining here for thirty days straight. Nice.

A bientot.